Monday, April 23, 2007

He Reads, She Reads

What makes a book appeal to a female audience? A male audience? All other things being equal (i.e., characterization, prose, etc), what elements in a book will turn off most women? Most men? I’ve been meaning to get back to this train of thought for the past week. I’ve probably been avoiding it because my thinking on the topic is still fuzzy.

Maybe the best way to tackle the question is to look at the two extremes—the kinds of books whose readers are almost exclusively of one gender or the other. For women that means romance and chick lit, while for men that means “men’s adventure” or whatever they’re calling it these days. So what characterizes these two extremes?

Romances and chick lit have female protagonists. While romances obviously require a male character, too, these books typically focus strongly on the female character. And as Charles pointed out in his response to my previous blog on this question, these books typically have a lot of lingering eye contact and florid descriptions of svelte young bodies, sexy hair, and great clothes (with an emphasis on clothes in chick lit). The conflict revolves around romance and/or shopping.

In contrast, male adventure stories have male protagonists. The lingering descriptions are of guns, cars, airplanes, ships, bombs—basically technology, especially lethal technology. Instead of love scenes there are fight scenes. The conflict revolves around power and money and control.

Yet women will read books about conflict over power and money, and men will read books that contain a love story. So what is the secret to appealing to both genders? I suspect it’s more a factor of what you leave out than it is a matter of what you put in. There is the obvious need to have protagonists of both genders, or at least a significant character of the other gender that readers can admire, respect, or identify with. After that, anyone interested in appealing to both genders needs to leave out the elements that typically turn off one gender or the other. That means no purple prose about abs and lips and hair, no boring descriptions of engines and rockets and guns. And while many women do read serial killer books, graphic descriptions of fighting and gore will probably lose a fair portion of female readers.

There is one other element at work here that I’m having a hard time defining without straying into politically incorrect territory. Basically, books read exclusively by women tend to deal with interpersonal relationships while books aimed at a predominantly male audience typically deal with saving the world or at least one small corner of it —think Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy. Then again, women have always been big mystery readers and that’s a genre that certainly deals with saving a small corner of the world.

But while there is some crossover, there’s a difference, isn’t there, between the mysteries women typically read and write, and the mysteries men most often choose? Maybe it would be most illustrative to look at the difference between the mysteries of, say, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie and P.D. James, vs. the mysteries of Donald Hamilton, Raymond Chandler, and John D. McDonald. Or, to choose modern examples, Laura Lippman and Nevada Barr compared to Michael Connelly and Tony Hillerman.

The truth is, women will read a “man’s” book far more often than a man will read a “woman’s” book. I suspect most little girls of my age grew up reading Treasure Island and Huck Finn. But how many boys read Little Women? As a teenager I read Alexander Dumas. I doubt my male contemporaries read Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austin. (Does anyone except my daughter read these books today? Actually, come to think of it, she’s read Kipling and Twain and Dumas, but not Bronte or Austin or Alcott.) So maybe the secret of appealing to both sexes is simply to be male and avoid overloading your book with technology and gore. Then again, since women read much more than men, you could just forget the guys all together and go after the female readers. I suspect 99% of Janet Evanovich’s audience is female and it hasn’t hurt her one bit, now has it?

6 comments:

liz fenwick said...

Interesting.......I keep trying to think of what books the dh have shared in common - few. I have read the ones he thought I would like but he has rarely read the ones I threw at him. The exceptions were on holiday last July. He had just finished Kate Mosse's Labyrith and had nothing else to sit beside the pool with so he picked up a book by Catherine Alliot. He couldn't stop laughing but as soon as we were back in the UK he left the book aside because he wouldn't read on the communite to work - the cover was the problem. That aside i think as more women read than men and buy more books I know which audience I want to appeal to.....but with the right cover that doesn't aleainate half of a possible readership. Wasn't there also the statsic recently that women will read books by both men and women but as a general rule men will only read books written by men.......or think they are.

Read the classics, I loved Dumas and Austin. Have just spoken to 12 ds who won't get his nose out of The Counte of Monte Cristo so hope is not lost for the younger generation so long as they are presented with the books......although I can't see him reading Little Women but I could be wrong. When desperate he will read what ever he can get his hands on. Maybe schools are to blame in putting more emphasis on male authors when there are plenty of women of equal standing to choose from. If you reach future readers at an earlier age before girls become yuck then that wider scope for reading may remain....just a thought.

cs harris said...

If your dh read Kate Mosse, than he is one of a minority of men who will read books with a woman's name on them. Perhaps you're right, it has something to do with the classics boys are given to read as children. It reinforces the idea that male concerns in fiction are the standard, while women's concerns are ghettoized as for women only. That doesn't seem likely to change in the near future.

Kate S said...

Sad, but true. It's why many women authors tend to pick masculine pseudonyms.

My brother tends to look wary and sniff around books I recommend before trying them out. It's as if he's afraid he might accidentally get his hands on some chick lit. :) He didn't even want to read Harry Potter when I suggested it--I had to convince him to just TRY it--and now he loves them.

Charles Gramlich said...

To play devil's advocate, what if both men and women like adventure, but men like it more? What if male writers tend to write stories with more adventure (such as quests) in them than females do? Would not women, especially young girls, perhaps, not want to read adventure and thus be ready to read male writers? While males, who like adventure more, would be less ready to read anything that didn't have the big adventure? This means that women's books about friendships and relationships might not seem adventurous to males.

cs harris said...

I think you're right, Charles, in the sense that almost all men like adventure, whereas many women--but not almost all--like adventure. And more women than men are interested in relationships. So that affects what they read and write. But it's also true that studies have shown that many men won't read a book with a woman's name on it. Steve found a great article on a recent study I want to blog about tomorrow.

Chap O'Keefe said...

I see some mention of the classics here. As a boy, I preferred adventure stories and crime stories -- the latter of any sort, including both Christie and Chandler. As a teenager, I was obliged to study Austen and Bronte, and learned to appreciate Austen's humour and clever use of language. I also enjoyed Dickens. Despite his wordiness, his characters were sharp and clear and the books had atmosphere. In his own day, I understand Dickens commanded an audience of both males and females.